Creating a Culture of Learning

On the morning of May 23rd in front of an isolated warehouse in the heart of Edgewater’s industrial park, rows of pick-up trucks began to line together door-to-door. Over 100 men and woman stepped out of them. Once inside they signed their name on a clipboard, grabbed a bagel from a square cardboard Panera box and took a seat. If you looked closely, you would see rival company reps sitting right next to each other. A Boston Whaler engineer with an Everglades manager, an international composite manufacturer next to the owner of a “mom-and-pop shop.” For one day, differences didn’t matter. Their collective need was far more important.

This event, a vacuum infusion workshop, occurred as a result of pure happenstance. Frank Mercer from Daytona State College’s Center for Business and Industry approached various local marine manufacturers and simply asked what they needed to develop talent. Unbeknownst to him, Sarah Dougherty, from Dougherty Manufacturing, was approaching Daytona State College to push for a class to be held outside of the college. Vacuum Infusion is a crucial method used in composite fabrication. Characterized by its use of a vacuum pump to push resin into a mold, it is popularly used in many industries including boat manufacturing and theme park ride building. Although the 100 that showed came from almost as many different companies, they all shared the same problem: they couldn’t find labor that knew how to do it.

“Over the last four years…we’ve seen more and more of the work force aging out,” said Composites One Technical Service manager, Bob Malark. “It can be nasty work…we need to develop a younger workforce while also retaining current employees. The people here can learn more and apply it later.”

This class follows a trend being observed across Volusia County. More and more firms are finding it valuable to communicate their needs to the local educational institutions or developing the programs themselves. From the outside looking in, many would feel that such workshops are competing against these vocational schools and colleges. After all, why would someone attend a college for training when they could get it for free and straight from the experts that know it best?

“There’s a role for all of it! All manufacturing companies have a need for workers with basic skills and workshops for the most experienced,” said Frank Mercer. “This allows DSC to establish connections for vendors and companies. We’re developing an entry level bootcamp for fiberglass workers and we had multiple people approach us here that asked to become teachers. Continuous education, from any source, is vital.”

Across the county, other firms are hosting such classes and workshops to develop their own employees. In 2009, NASCAR saw a need for learning and skill development for their workforce. Thus, NASCAR University was born. NASCAR believes that the only thing fiercer than the competition observed on the track is the competition for talent. NASCAR University started as a series of modules and live classes to maximize their employees’ existing skills and to develop a leadership process. However, their approach was far more innovative. Rather than target specific courses for their employees, they gave their employees the freedom to choose what to learn. Eight years later, NASCAR University now hosts over 500 courses.

NASCAR University was an effort to create a culture of learning for the company. Every employee is required to take four class credits every year, and these classes range from leadership seminars and educational modules talking about the history of the company to oil change courses and off-site culinary team building activities. Classes and training modules certainly aren’t unique to NASCAR, but NASCAR’s approach is entirely original and has proven effective. What was once thought of as yet another Human Resources obligation has now become a valued asset.

“Although employees are only required to take four credits, we’ve actually observed that 65-70% of them go beyond the four credits,” said NASCAR manager of Training and Development, Melissa Howe. “They can go online and easily navigate around what they’re taking and what classes are available.”

Not only do these employees have the freedom to choose what they learn, but they can also choose where they learn it and when. Any NASCAR employee can login to the NASCAR University portal any time they want, including at home on their personal laptop. Some would question why a class on oil changing would prove to be effective for the company. But in providing such a diverse collection of courses, NASCAR is essentially promoting the idea that any learning is good. In such an environment, it creates not only a culture of learning but a culture of loyalty from their employees and more cross-functionality. At the end of every module, every user is made to answer a survey or take a test to determine how much they liked the presentation of the material or to make sure that they actually learned what was presented. NASCAR uses the data produced by these answers to tinker and constantly improve. Thus, NASCAR University itself participates in this culture of learning as well. Because of these efforts, NASCAR has been recognized by the Association for Talent Development for their accomplishments and as a top 100 e-learning company four years in a row.

“We are really creating and sustaining this culture that says you need to learn here…you need to grow here,” said Miller. “The business of our sport has grown quite complicated…we have to be top of the game. The breadth of business understanding expanding allows our teams to talk in the same language. To grow in their different categories of work. It doesn’t matter what job you do…these are going to elevate our employees and the performance of the company.”